Portrait of a Graduate: Emotional Intelligence

August 4, 2023 | Bryce Carlisle


Traditional high schools are really good at teaching academics, but what about the other skills teenagers need to thrive in the real world? What about emotional intelligence?

It’s the kind of thing you might expect to hear about in a commencement address… along with “forks in the road” or “oh, the places we’ll go.” But have you ever heard about professional wrestlers as models of emotional intelligence? You did if you were at Waterloo’s 2023 Commencement.

As we look forward to welcoming another batch of freshmen this fall, it’s a great time to think back, look forward, and explore how emotions factor into a complete full-person education. (And we’ll get to the pro wrestler part, we promise!)

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s own emotions while also being able to understand and empathize with the emotions of others. It involves social skills like self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, and empathy. By developing emotional intelligence, we can better navigate life’s challenges and improve our relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers.

How do we address emotional intelligence in school?

Before Waterloo even opened its doors, its founders took a close hard look at the characteristics they believe teenagers need — it became our portrait of a graduate.

Our goal is to graduate well-rounded young adults who are prepared for college and life. We measure growth in three areas: Academic, Productive, and Personal (a shorthand for that is the head, the hand, and the heart). We provide feedback in these areas in addition to course grades because we believe that the whole person matters.

A lot of Emotional intelligence falls under “personal”.

When we think about teaching emotional intelligence in high school, we are really talking about equipping students with essential life skills and capacities that will benefit them throughout their lives. It is an investment in their personal growth and development that will pay dividends both personally and professionally.

But do you actually teach emotional intelligence?

Yes and no. Emotional maturity isn’t something you can capture in textbooks and quizzes — but that’s never been how Waterloo works in the first place.

What we can do is:

  1. Model it: We know teenagers are looking at who we are and what we do more than what we say.
  2. Encourage it: Talk it up. Make it clear that emotional intelligence is a valuable characteristic — not just valuable as an abstract virtue, but in a rewarding, personally, and relationally beneficial way.
  3. Enable it: Create a safe environment for students to try new things, make mistakes, and try again. Show that we’re all growing and working on it together. Physical risks require safe places to fall — literal padding in some cases. Emotional risks require safe places to fail. That’s a big part of enabling it.
  4. Provide feedback: In addition to letter grades, Waterloo report cards include all kinds of full-person feedback on things like emotional intelligence. Celebrate the emotional ‘wins.’ Join them in growing from emotional ‘falls.’

Emotions are tricky. It’s always been tempting to sweep them under the rug, but we can’t assume that our students are simply going to figure them out on their own. By bringing them out into the open and having mature, constructive conversations, we can absolutely create an environment where students can make real progress.

Lessons learned from Proverbs… and pro wrestlers??

There are certain things you expect to hear in commencement addresses. Forks in the road. Oh, the places we’ll go. But have you ever heard seniors exhorted to look to professional wrestlers as models of emotional intelligence to emulate? You did if you were at Waterloo’s commencement 2023 Commencement.

In his address, Mr. Carlisle told a story about a Bible verse, Proverbs 4:23, that says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

He used to think that “keeping your heart” meant bottling up your feelings: “Don’t feel. And if you do, don’t by any means share them. Feelings are wild, and your one job is to hold it all together.”

But, what if keeping your heart means tending it — more like a gardener caring for their plants or a plumber adjusting a valve to get the right flow? Life is full of disruptions, and learning how and when to express your emotions becomes crucial.

“I think about the best pro wrestlers,” said Mr. Carlisle. “They know how to tend their hearts in the sense that I’m speaking of. They don’t suppress their emotions. Instead, they embrace them. They ignite the fire within the shape. They pump up the crowd, and they go all in.”

But are their emotional antics random or uncontrolled? No. He explained that their success lies in understanding the importance of timing and seizing opportunities.

“Similarly, in the wrestling match of life, you must learn when and where to express your heart. Emotional growth is a continuous process of making mistakes, learning, and trying again.”

We’re in this together

So whether you’re a 14-year-old freshman, an 18-year-old graduate, or a 42-year-old working professional, remember to continue nurturing your emotional intelligence. Practice self-reflection, learn from your experiences, and seek out opportunities for growth.

Bryce Carlisle

Bryce Carlisle

Bryce is a co-founder of Waterloo School, Director of Development and teaches History, Literature, Spanish, and directs the Junior Project. Prior to Waterloo, Bryce taught and served as Faculty Dean and director of the Senior Thesis Program at Regents School of Austin. Bryce worked in home construction as a customer service representative at Pulte Group Inc., and taught humanities for two years at Trinity Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bryce served as an intern at two Presbyterian churches and college minister for two years with the Navigators, with whom he did missionary work in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, and Uzbekistan. He has a bachelor’s of arts in Spanish from The University of Kansas and a MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary. Bryce and his wife Lorie have five lively boys and attend First Baptist Church, Dripping Springs. Bryce enjoys making art and music on the guitar and cheering on his sons at football, soccer, basketball games and track and field events.